Could a personalized magazine help save print media?
When I signed up for Mine a couple of months ago, I was mainly looking for a laugh. The new magazine from Time Inc. seemed like a gimmicky, goofy effort to save a beleaguered industry: Time wanted to print a magazine just for me! First, I had to choose several popular Time publications and answer a few odd questions about my interests. ("Which do you crave more—sushi, or pizza?") Then, every two weeks, I would get an issue, curated just for me, filled with articles from different magazines. The process seemed hopelessly anachronistic, like if the horse-and-buggy industry decided to compete with cars by letting me pick my buggy driver. Doesn't Time know that I already have a way to get a magazine tailored to my interests? The Web isn't just faster and cheaper than print; it also doesn't need to know what I ate for dinner in order to let me read exactly what I want to at any time.
Turns out my skepticism was misguided. I've received two issues of Mine, and I love it. Unlike a lot of the publications that slip into my mailbox each month, Mine is full of stories that I actually feel like reading. As promised, many of the articles look as if they were picked just for me: The latest issue featured an essay by Time television critic James Poniewozik about the pleasure of watching TV shows online and a guide from Money covering the best ways to digitize my old photos, videos, and slides.
At the same time, Mine is smarter than the much-feared Daily Me. Mine isn't an echo chamber that merely reflects my narrow views. Instead, reading it is a bit listening to Pandora, the online service that serves up songs based on my musical preferences. Like Pandora—and like the best magazine editors—Mine exposed me to stuff that I liked but probably wouldn't have sought out on my own. I don't have much of a patio, but I still found Mine's tips for organizing my outdoor furniture pretty handy. (The article first appeared in Real Simple.) Similarly, even though I'd never heard of Tony Mandarich, I couldn't put down the Sports Illustrated story chronicling the former NFL tackle's effort to atone for his steroids-laden past.
Sure, I could have found many of these articles online; in fact, reading Mine often feels like reading a great link blog. But Mine is more fun to read than whatever's on my computer screen—it's more portable, more aesthetically appealing, and easier to curl up with. So far, no digital technology can replicate the pleasure of a full-color glossy magazine. The Food & Wine article on Jacques Pépin's favorite quick recipes that Mine reprinted wouldn't have appealed to me on a Kindle—the picture of Pépin's skirt steak and apple Charlotte would have looked like bad hospital food. I can also keep Mine next to the stove as I cook; I wouldn't try that with a netbook.
Timecalls Mine an experiment. It's giving away the magazine for free to the first 31,000 people who sign up—the project is bankrolled by Toyota, whose Lexus ads plaster the back and inside covers of Mine—and it plans to publish just five issues. [Update 5/27: Readers who have tried to subscribe tell me that those 31,000 print slots have been filled; if you sign up now, you'll receive electronic editions of Mine.] There are certainly kinks to work out; Mine is printed on uncomfortably heavy paper that gives it the feel of a brochure rather than a magazine, and perhaps because the difficulty of publishing a different copy for every subscriber, there's been a long lag between issues. (I've received two copies in the last month and a half, rather than the promised copy every two weeks.)The Lexus spots are also a bit creepy—the ad goes out of its way to prove that the page was printed just for me, mentioning both my name and full street address in the copy (as if I needed to know where I'd be driving my Lexus). Worse, the magazine is dated, reprinting many articles that were first published months ago and staying away from the most topical news. (The Poniewozik piece, for instance, appeared in Time in February.)
But these are quibbles, and they're probably easily addressed; if Time can work them out, I'd urge it to keep Mine going. The magazine business, like every other part of the publishing industry, hasn't been doing well of late. The recession has depressed ad revenues, and every magazine is struggling to find a way to fit into the digital future. These transitions have been rocky: Check out this thread featuring current and former staffers of Wired discussing how poorly the magazine's Web and print staffers coordinate their efforts. Or look at the critical reception to Newsweek's efforts to build a bloggier print mag.
Mine offers a model for a smoother transition from print to digital. It gives readers much of what we like about the Web but in a package that—until a color Kindle comes along—is much more practical. Even though I've been cutting down on the number of magazines I get at home, I'd sign up for Mine, and I bet others would as well. The model will also attract advertisers, too: The same information that the magazine uses to pick out my articles can also be used to target advertising, which means the mag can charge much higher ad rates.
The on-demand model seems especially attractive for magazine conglomerates like Time and Condé Nast, which can offer readers a large menu of publications. But the effort might also benefit smaller magazines that have been hit especially hard by the Web; they might see a benefit to joining up with other publications to offer on-demand content.
Take Playboy, whose fortunes have flagged for an obvious reason—there's now a much easier way to get the content that made it famous. But Playboy—I've heard—also publishes lots of interesting articles that might appeal to wide range of readers. By offering its content as part of a customized magazine, Playboy could liberate all these articles—it could send its politics articles to news junkies who otherwise would be too embarrassed to buy the magazine. In the same way, The New Yorker could send its sports stories to people who would ordinarily read Sports Illustrated, while Entertainment Weekly could send its movie reviews to folks who love Harper's. Suddenly, the print magazine would become something vital, diverse, and topical again. In other words, it'd be just like the Web.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.